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An antidote to blokish certainties on religion


Does God Live in the Suburbs? What ordinary people believe. Myer Bloom, Indra Publishing, Briar Hill, RRP $34.95

suburb When I think of people talking about religions, I see blokes in dark suits — Bishops of various persuasions, or more informal blokes like Dawkins or Hitchens. They may be for religion in general, or against all religions, or for their own religion and against others. But they are all dead earnest, and succeed in making religions seem both strange and incomprehensible to us amateurs. No wonder that when telly soapies home in on religion, they go for creepy spaces and tortured faces.

So this unpretentious collection of interviews is welcome in its simplicity and artlessness. The editor arranged to have adherents of many religious groups interviewed. They were asked to reply to simple questions about their beliefs, their religious practices and symbols, their ethical framework and their attitude to contemporary Australian society. They are amiable and leisurely in their replies.

The question posed in the title of this book — whether God lives in the burbs — remains hanging. But the language in which God is spoken of is definitely suburban. The participants, whether from mainline Churches, Eastern religious traditions or more modern beliefs, are articulate but use words that find common ground with readers unfamiliar with their beliefs. They invite others into a world in which their distinctive beliefs and practices are everyday, not strange. They do a much better job of communicating than most of the professionals in their groups.

Their descriptions are also ordinary and understated. As you read, you begin to understand how people can spend a hard day making money behind the office computer while living a life that contains seven times of prayer, 600 religious laws, a belief in the second coming and so on. The beliefs and practices of personal life and of the workplace are part of a single world.

These stories of ordinary believers are striking for two apparently conflicting reasons. First, they hang together. People's faith, religious symbols and daily lives appear to be part of a coherent whole. Whether or not their religious leaders would agree with the large picture they present, they find it persuasive and workable.

Perhaps this coherence explains why critics assume that derive all their convictions and attitudes from the authority of their sacred books or their religious leaders. But most striking in most of the accounts is that they are open-ended and contain happily unresolved questions. These believers take their faith seriously, but wrestle with how they are to live in a world where their convictions are a minority taste. Almost all of them are positive in the way they see people with different convictions. They recognise that they drift in the same boat.

Many of them, however, share a distaste for aspects of secular society. They see it as unhelpful in different ways — in its representation of sexual identity, its fluidity of family roles and models, and its sexualised representation of women. Since many of the believers interviewed had come as migrants to Australia, the antipathy to today's Western culture reflects its contrast with their own inherited values. Their religious beliefs have enabled them to establish continuity with their own cultural traditions in a world of change.

But the stories are also striking because they so often try to make points of contact between religious practice and Western culture. Some, for example, reflect that the fasting from meat prescribed by their religion reflected traditional wisdom about countering cholesterol. This is only a simple example of a broader attempt to find coherence between their faith and their cultural environment.

Although the people interviewed in this book certainly come across as religious people, they appeal more strongly as people you might like to have living next door. They are ordinary people in whose life religious faith and practice seem to be helpful. They also appear to be good and even nice people, if niceness suggests that their goodness is ordinary.

I suppose that it would be too much to hope that soapies might use these interviews rather than The da Vinci Code as the basis for their scripts on religion in the burbs. The suburbs, after all, are already denizened by Desperate Housewives. But this book is a good antidote to blokish certainties on religion.


Indra Publishing

Andrena JamiesonAndrena Jamieson is a Melbourne writer.


Image: Flickr



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Existing comments

Interesting review - but please, not another noun being brutally verbalised:"---denizened by Desperate Housewives." Eeech!!!

Chris chenoweth | 28 March 2008  

Interesting review but I wonder how far the net is cast. Does it include civil religion? Australia, and Sydney in particular, would go close to being the most religiously diverse place on earth. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Agreed on the "denizened" and we could do without the reference to a trashy american show that reflects little, if anything, of Australian life.

trevor | 29 March 2008  

Ms Jameson writes that "People's faith, religious symbols and daily lives appear to be part of a coherent whole." That research should lead to this observation should be no cause for surprise. After all, as Brian exhorts the masses in the the movie of his life, "you are all individuals! You all have to work it out for yourself!"

We, the masses, are doing so. The diversity of ways in which we strive for good does not alter the fact that it is good for which we strive.

David Arthur | 29 March 2008  

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